The Water Knife
by Paolo Bacigalupi
Review by Ernest Lilley
Knopf Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780385352871
Date: 26 May 2015 List Price $25.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Angel Velasquez, the water knife of the title, is not exactly a good guy. That's offset by the reality that in this near future vision of the water-starved southwest, there aren't any good guys.
Angel works for Catherine Case, the queen of water for Las Vegas, and what he does is whatever she tells him, like cutting the water lifeline to Carson City, which is where we meet him at the books opening, storming a water pumping station with helicopter gunships and thin legal cover.
Then there's Lucy Monroe, whom might have thought she was one of the good guys, at least when she left her East Coast roots as a fresh J-School grad to cover the desiccation and self-destruction taking place in Phoenix. But she's been covering the story too long, and she's shifted from embedded to entangled so slowly that she never noticed until she was in too deep to get out. Now something is stirring in Phoenix, and Case has sent her Angel of dust to get to be bottom of rumors that something is happening that could shift the balance of power, the array of water rights from the Colorado River, in a fundamental way.
So, it's no surprise that Angel and Lucy collide when she goes down to dig into the death of a friend of hers, an obscure legal cog in the city's water who'd been tortured and murdered (repeatedly) and the two begin orbiting each other in a spiral that will draw them together and tear them apart (also repeatedly).
Moving away from the flooded coastlines of his other novels, like The Windup Girl and Ship Breaker, Paolo imagines a world, or at least a region, balkanized by a weakened federal government and defined by the water demands of Nevada and California, with Phoenix as a sacrifice in the middle. But the big players can smell the scent of water somewhere in the city, and everyone wants to be sure that they wind up owning it. Adding to the mix a horde of displaced Texans, tumbleweeds blown away an abandoned state, trying to get past closed state borders to the north, where it's green and wet. Nobody much likes the Texans, and resentment threatens to explode as the story progresses.
Paolo's writing evokes a palpable sense of the dry, cracked, desert reclaiming the Southwest. In the infrequent moments when I was able to put the book down I was often surprised to find myself in the soft coolness of my East Coast digs, rather than in the harsh world of The Water Knife. The main characters do a pretty good job of driving the story forward, and besides Angel and Lucy, there's Maria, a young Texan refugee who sells water to construction workers, and her friends: Sarah, a party girl looking for a ticket into the self contained arcology the Chinese are building, and Toomie, old enough to be her father, looking out for her as best he can while he sells pupusas to the same workers.
It's a good read, but somehow not as compelling as The Windup Girl was. Maybe it's because the title character isn't as sympathetic, or because the story is too close to home. We know the Southwest, and we know about drought, so our ability to accept the various conceits in his world building are a tougher sell. Regardless, The Water Knife does a good job of exploring both the tensions of the region and the technologies needed to squeeze a few precious drops from the arid landscape.
It's dark and it's twisty, and if water could only flow like the blood that gets spilled along the way in this return to adult fiction for the author, there would be no shortage at all.